The Aftermath Of A Fatal Disaster Could Save You

Psychologist Anthony Mancini’s new research proves what doesn’t kill you does make you stronger, psychologically speaking.

By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | July 14, 2022

A new study published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin highlights the mental health benefits one can experience in the aftermath of a mass trauma or natural disaster.

I recently spoke to psychologist Anthony Mancini of Pace University, New York to understand how post-disaster social support can jolt people out of their mental prisons. Here is a summary of our conversation.

What inspired you to investigate the topic of disaster exposure and its effect on adaptive psychological and social functioning?

I have done a lot of research on the different ways people respond to acute stress. Typically, you find three different patterns when you examine psychological functioning (e.g., depression, PTSD, anxiety) after such events:

  1. a resilient pattern
  2. a recovery pattern
  3. a chronic distress pattern

But a surprising finding was emerging in studies that collected data before a mass stressor happened. (You might wonder how you could collect data before the event, and the explanation is pure serendipity — the researchers were studying something else and then changed course to study the traumatic event.)

The most notable example of this was the Virginia Tech Campus shootings, at the time the deadliest mass shooting in US history (tragically, as we know, there have been worse shootings since).

This study produced a very unusual finding: among the students who were depressed and anxious before the shootings about half of them saw dramatic improvements in anxiety and depression.

They were actually doing much better after the shooting than before. I speculated that the event stitched them into the campus community and indeed these improved participants also reported very large increases in perceived social support and social resources.

This study underscored for me that mass trauma/natural disaster can have complicated effects. I discovered in my review of the literature that this pattern was not unusual and had been identified in studies of life-threatening illness, bereavement, natural disasters, and military deployment.

I eventually formulated a theory (published in Psychological Review) called "psychosocial gains from adversity." In effect, my inspiration for this study grew directly out of my desire to test whether the predictions of the theory would be borne out in a study of Hurricane Sandy.

How did you study it, and what did you find?

My colleagues and I were already conducting a study on adaptation to college. So we had an assessment before the hurricane, which is extremely rare, and this allowed us to examine how they were doing before and after the hurricane.

But we also had another important feature to the study — subsequent cohorts of students that we assessed in the two semesters after. Thus, we could essentially conduct two comparisons — the first involved comparing students to themselves before and after the hurricane; the second involved comparing one cohort (the hurricane cohort ) to later cohorts who did not have recent hurricane exposure.

Both comparisons showed that the hurricane cohort was doing better. When we compared their functioning before and after, the hurricane cohort experienced reduced distress, negative emotion, and attachment avoidance.

They also reported increased social support. When we compared the cohorts, we also found that the hurricane cohort, compared to the cohort one year later, had more social support, less attachment anxiety, and less attachment avoidance. This provided additional confirmation using a different method that the hurricane cohort was actually better off as a result of the hurricane.

An important finding is that these beneficial effects appeared to be attributable to the increased social support. That is, because the participants experienced a boost in social support, they also saw carry-on benefits in their psychological functioning. This is exactly the claim of "psychosocial gains from adversity."

Can you give a brief description of how moderate disaster exposure affects various facets of psychological functioning? Could you name these?

Again, moderate disaster exposure essentially activates an instinct to affiliate with others. This instinct likely has evolutionary roots, is related to the attachment system, and helps us cope with adversity generally.

Because social behavior and relationships are critical to mental health, stress can then have surprising benefits on our level of distress, our concerns about our relationships, and the level of responsiveness we experience from others. All of that is to the good psychologically.

Of course, acute stressors can also have negative consequences. And in relation to natural disasters, if we are dislocated or lose our home, then these stressful consequences would overwhelm the favorable effects.

The point of the paper was to suggest a potential sweet spot for disaster and to reorient our understanding of these events.

What wisdom does your research hold for someone who has been through natural disasters or other forms of stressful experiences? Can they use their experience to their advantage?

A simple one: obey the instinct to affiliate with others after stressful experiences. They will likely be receptive and you may find that you have forged a new relationship or strengthened an existing one, both of which will be to your benefit in the future.

What are the upsides, if any, to stressful experiences? If so, could you explain the process that underlies the benefits?

There are many. These can include reduced distress, increased well-being, and better relationships. As mentioned, it is the social consequences of stress that are critical. When we feel isolated by an experience or shamed by it, that is when the consequences are greatest.

How does your research connect with, and inform, other research on the psychological and social impacts of stressful experiences?

I take a different approach to these questions than, for example, posttraumatic growth, a widely studied proposal that being traumatized helps us.

In effect, this perspective requires traumatization and the ruminative process of climbing out of it helps us.

Despite what I've said so far, I'm not persuaded by the research on posttraumatic growth, and the perspective I've put forth is fundamentally different for a few reasons. First, it does not require being traumatized at all. Second, it involves automatic processes of social behavior (not ruminative reconstructive processes). Third, it happens immediately and does not require a long period of time.